Spanish or French? Reflections from usefulness to phonetics and orthography

One of the most common questions when deciding our son or daughter to start learning a foreign language is which language to choose. And European languages are on the rise in Asia and especially in Hong Kong, where most of the students master Cantonese, Mandarin and English. Among them, Spanish and French are the popular ones, and comparisons between them are unavoidable since they share many facts given their same origin from Latin.


Many things should be taken into account, from objective facts to personal feelings, but finally the decision is to be taken depending on what we think is better for our son or daughter and his/her motivation and interests. What is true is:


Spanish is the second most spoken language in the world after Mandarin, as well as it is the second most studied one behind English. Also Spanish ranks third in Internet presence, letting the first two positions to English and Mandarin.

Another main difference between Spanish and French comes out according to the nationality of the students. While Spanish is mainly chosen by students in European countries, Brazil, Japan, China and the United States, French is an option in Canada –where it is an official language- as well as in many Sub-Saharian and African countries with historic links to France.


Attending to linguistic features it is difficult, or even impossible, to make an objective and fair comparison between Spanish and French. Also the grade of difficulty when learning a second language depends on various factors like the mother tongue of the student and other second languages he/she knows. Even though, most of the issues discussed when comparing Spanish and French are related to phonetics and orthography, and here we want to provide you some light into this matter.


First, we need to pay attention to some historic facts. It is known that during the Middle Ages in Europe many languages and dialects were spoken because the current countries were still not shaped and different kingdoms coexisted in relatively small areas. It was Alfonso X the first Spanish king that, in the thirteenth century, made the effort to establish a common Spanish language among the different social groups and disciplines –from science to literature- with a great success. He also developed an orthographic reform in order to standardize and simplify the written Spanish, which gains transparency according to its link with phonetics. This enterprise was later continued by Antonio de Nebrija at the end of the fifteenth century.



Meanwhile, France was living a very different reality. As in Spain, many dialects were spoken in different areas, but in this case not one of them was more widespread than the others. At the same time, German was exerting a strong influence on the language in the northern and eastern territories given the physical proximity. It was not until the sixteenth century, much later than in Spain, that a “standard” French was imposed in the whole country, although it was reserved for the higher strata, while the lower social classes tended to keep using their own dialects. At that time proposals for linking orthography with phonetics did not succeed, and was not until the eighteenth century that the current written French started to be managed by l’Académie Française.


Spanish is simplified


As a result of all these events French orthography and phonetics have accumulated much more varied features than Spanish. In contrast, Spanish has been partially homogenized and even in some aspects simplified. This is the case of the loss of some graphemes –graphic way of representing the sound of a syllable- in Spanish, while it has not happened in other Latin languages. For example, while most of the Latin languages keep the graphemes “s” and “ss”, the second one has been lost in Spanish at the same time the phonetic has been simplified for making the grapheme “s” the only one needed.


Talking about vowels, French has 15 different vowel sounds when Spanish just uses five. Along the history, French syllables have experimented first, a tendency to elongate by joining two or three vowels together, and later, the opposite phenomenon of contraction. These processes finally originated a wide range of vowel sounds that were not subjected to a homogenization or simplification by French institutions.


In contrast consonants are more or less even in number, whether it is in Spanish or in French, but the suppression of the sound of final consonants in French words can make the achievement of a correct writing a bit more challenging. This also adds an extra grade of difficulty to liaison. This is a phonetic phenomenon in spoken French where the sound of a final consonant is joined with the one of a starting vowel in the following word. As an example, in the word vous, you (plural) in French, the final “s” is not pronounced; it is neither pronounced in the expression vous faites, you (plural) do, since the second word starts also in consonant and there is not a liaison. In contrast, the liaison phenomenon makes that in the expression vous êtes, you (plural) are, the final “s” of vous is pronounced in order to link the sound with the starting vowel of êtes, not being any more a silent letter.


In relation to accentuation, the differentiation of the strong syllable in each word, there are precise rules for it in Spanish. So once you know how to use them properly, you can pronounce brand new words with no hesitation when reading them, as well as you will be able to write accurately new words that you listen for the first time. In the case of French the accentuation goes by the sentence rather than the word, and even exists some sort of tonal variation between strong syllables and the rest. Given this French has more a musically sound than Spanish.


As a conclusion, when working from spelling to phonology and vice versa, Spanish is considered a transparent language while French is remarkably opaque, and this phenomenon has been called by some authors “the mystery of French”. While in Spanish one syllable sound called phoneme links univocally to only one way of writing called grapheme -with few exceptions-, in French more than one grapheme can orthographicallyrepresent the same.


If you are thinking about learning Spanish, take a look at our Spanish Courses here.
However, if you want to take a chance with French, our partner French Tutors Hong Kong can offer you some courses too.

香港西班牙文化會 - The Spanish Cultural Association of Hong Kong

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